3 things we learned from the nationwide drop in homicides

Read more about the four Executive Directors of CAPS as they share their opinion on what we've learned from the drop in homicides across the country.

3 things we learned from the nationwide drop in homicides

OPINION: If we want to continue the decline in violence in American cities, we must reflect on the lessons learned and invest in evidence-based strategies that can help save lives.

Read more in this op-ed from the Grio where the four Executive Directors of CAPS examine the possible causes for the reductions from their historic highs.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Last year, gun homicides in America dropped by nearly 13%, continuing a dramatic downward trend that began after the pandemic receded in 2022. By some estimates, the 2023 gun violence decline represented the single largest yearly drop in homicides in American history.

Good news related to gun violence doesn’t happen very often, so it’s worth asking the obvious question: What happened? The truth is there is no simple answer. While that might not be satisfying, it’s critically important because it underscores another truth: the drivers of gun violence — and the evidenced-based solutions that can stop it — are also not as simple and obvious as many believe.

We know because we live and breathe this work every day. As Black leaders of four national technical assistance providers to community violence intervention (CVI) and ecosystem partners — Cities United, Community Based Public Safety Collective (CBPSC), the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (HAVI) and the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR) — we work in cities across America to reinvest in communities grappling with the effects of historic disinvestment. While we can’t say for sure what caused last year’s historic decline, there are three lessons from 2023 that can help deepen our understanding of gun violence and the path we must take to end this public health crisis.

The first lesson is that gun violence doesn’t look the way we’ve been taught it does. Despite what you may see in the movies or read in the news, the majority of violence in America’s cities is not premeditated; it’s not the result of warring gangs and it’s not school shootings. Instead, it’s the result of arguments that take place outdoors between people who know one another personally. But Americans don’t just misidentify the type of gun violence plaguing our communities, they also misidentify its drivers. The vast majority of gun violence involves a small number of people between the ages of 25-35 — and studies show that almost 80% of all murders can be defined as “unplanned acts of anger, rage, or frustration.” These are fathers and sons, classmates and neighbors. They’re not “bad people.” They just have identifiable risk factors and have faced years of intense trauma. That, combined with generations of racial, economic and social inequities, constitutes some of the root causes that drive gun violence.

When gun violence surged during the pandemic, these truths were laid bare. According to recent research, gun violence surged only after widespread reopenings, as people once again started congregating in their communities. Shootings rose despite there actually being “a decrease in defensive use, drug-involved and home invasion shooting incidents.” And while there was a notable increase in mass shootings and child-involved accidents and injuries, the vast majority of homicides involved community gun violence. The effects were devastating for everyone affected, but Black Americans were most impacted. Between 2019 and 2022, the gun homicide rate among Black Americans grew faster than for any other racial or ethnic group, increasing by 48%. That grim statistic follows a well-worn pattern in which new trauma exacerbates seemingly intractable issues plaguing communities of color.

But looking at last year’s decline doesn’t just reveal what type of gun violence is most prevalent in our communities, it also shows us how to stop it: by investing in community violence intervention. Through intervention efforts like wraparound support services and prevention strategies like youth mentorship, CVI empowers those closest to the violence to stop it before it occurs and end dangerous cycles before they repeat themselves.

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that CVI strategies work. Participation in Chicago CRED — an evidence-based CVI program — has been shown to reduce violent crime arrests by 73.4% among participants. And CRED is not an outlier. A similar evaluation of the Advance Peace CVI model found a 22% decrease in gun homicides and assaults among participants, and a separate randomized controlled trial of a hospital-based violence intervention program found that participants were three times less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Based in part on that evidence, the CVI field has benefited from a renewed focus on our strategies and secured billions of dollars in federal, state and local funding during the pandemic to do this life-saving work. The Biden-Harris administration led the charge with the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, empowering cities to invest $15 billion in public safety. In 2021, our organizations worked with the White House to offer resources and support for the Community Violence Intervention Coalition — an 18-month effort to foster coordination among 16 jurisdictions committed to using federal funding from the ARPA to reduce violence. As a result of those efforts, our partner cities like St. Louis and Atlanta are pouring significant resources into the CVI field.

It’s not a coincidence that gun violence declined as a result. CVI strategies are successful when implemented with fidelity and funded consistently and many cities across the country are seeing historic reductions in gun violence, with some, like Newark, boasting declines as high as 50%.

The lesson to be learned here is that those closest to violence actually have a major role to play in reducing it.

Finally, the last lesson we should take from the gun violence decline is that it’s not complete. While homicides decreased by record levels last year, they still remain above pre-COVID levels — a “new normal” that we shouldn’t accept and can’t endure. A continued decline isn’t inevitable; we’ll need to work for it if we want to see this trend continue and a critical part of that work is building a robust CVI ecosystem that includes lasting investments in the organizations on the ground. These community-driven interventions — from street outreach to victim/survivor services to hospital-based violence intervention — must have the capacity to expand and strengthen their operations even as violence continues to decline.

“Capacity” is often thrown around as a buzzword, but for those leading the work on the ground, it has a tangible impact on their ability to save lives. Providers and city leaders need technical assistance in designing their strategies. They need data systems to track the progress of their participants. And many need back-end office support to process payroll and apply for grants. Many of the cities with the most impressive drops in homicide over the last few years — including Newark, Baton Rogue and Baltimore — have invested in these supports, and now it’s paying dividends. To replicate their results, we need to follow their example.

As leaders of CVI organizations, we know that the right resources and support can make a difference in communities to help keep people safe. That’s why, last year our organizations came together to form the Coalition to Advance Public Safety a national effort to build the capacity of providers and cities and challenge regressive narratives about what’s driving gun violence in America and how we can stop it.

If we want to build on the strides we have made toward curbing violence in American cities, we must reflect on the lessons learned over the past years and invest in evidence-based strategies that have the potential to save lives.

Fatimah Loren Dreier, Executive Director of the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention and the Kaiser Permanente Center for Gun Violence Research and Education, helps to advance gun violence prevention through the development of hospital-based violence intervention programs and addressing violence as a public health crisis.

David Muhammad is the Executive Director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and is a leader in the fields of criminal justice, violence prevention, and youth development.

Aqeela Sherrills, a respected spirit-centered organizer and activist, has spent thirty years championing community-led public safety, spearheading efforts to diminish violence and nurture healing in marginalized areas. As the Co-Founder and head of the Community-Based Public Safety Collective, he is a leading authority in victim service and community-based public safety initiatives.

Anthony Smith is the executive director of Cities United, under his leadership, the organization has partnered with hundreds of cities who are working to create safe, healthy, and hopeful communities for young Black men and boys, and their families.